I wish that a liberal arts college degree certified the possession of certain minimal skills

I teach in a sociology department at a regional university. There are of course thousands of students graduating from similar programs in similar universities around the country. What do such students know when they graduate? What have they learned?

My sense is that there is great heterogeneity in what such graduates know and what they have learned. Some have learned quite a bit about how to think in a more analytical way and about how to write. Others, it seems, not so much. It’s not so much that the threshold for passing is low as that the threshold appears to vary considerably by professor and by program. For this reason, I think that a degree in a field like sociology from a regional university tells an employer little if anything about what a student knows or what skills he or she has to offer. An employer has to look a bit deeper for this. ( note I am NOT saying that a college degree signifies nothing. A college degree does signify to employers that a person will submit to authority and conform to expectations to some degree. What I’m saying is that a liberal arts college degree doesn’t certify that a person has acquire analytical or writing skills above any reasonable, identifiable threshold.)

One could challenge this notion by noting that students must maintain a minimum GPA and must avoid failing required classes. But GPA doesn’t tell us anything specific about what skills a student has mastered. To be sure, GPA probably correlates fairly strongly with such skills one might expect from college graduates in the US such as the capacity to construct an English sentence that is essentially free of grammatical and spelling errors.

But the fact that GPA correlates with the capacity to write a sentence free of major errors hints at the problem itself. Does GPA correlate with the knowledge that 2+2 =4? No, we can safely assume that there is no variation among college graduates in the ability to answer that question correctly. Thus, the correlation between answering that question correctly and GPA is likely to be essentially zero. I don’t know much about the standards set for high school graduation in various States, but I do think there is the expectation for mastery of certain basic rules of writing. (The fact that a considerable number of students are permitted to graduate high school without such skills is no reason to then permit them to go on to graduate from college with these deficits essentially intact.)

In my view, GPA shouldn’t correlate very highly with the capacity to write a sentence free of major grammatical errors because there shouldn’t be much variation among college graduates in this capacity. A degree from an accredited college or university should certify that a person possesses skills that exceed the thresholds set for high schools around the nation.

But the threshold for a college degree does not necessarily exceed the standard for high school graduation. Instead, the minimum threshold is perhaps consistent with Woody Allen’s maxim that 90% of life is showing up.

The reasons are clear enough. What incentive do professors have to assign failing grades to student work that falls below the threshold of many high school curricula? Very few. And when a student or their family is shelling out 10k a year, and the student is going through all the motions, how many professors can assign an F when the work is seriously substandard? In my experience, academics in the field with which I am familiar tend to be softies, myself included. (I think this is partly why I feel like I only started feeling socially at home in grad school– people were just a lot nicer there than what I had experienced previously.)

And university administrators are often primarily concerned about maintaining or boosting enrollment. The viability of the college and the careers of administrators often depend at least partly on the success by which they meet enrollment objectives. This is understandable. And professors salaries and the quality of their work environments often depend to some degree on enrollment. Even if professors weren’t softies, their jobs depend on enrollments.

I don’t think there are many A’s for effort. Most professors will make distinctions between work of varying quality. But I think there a lot of C-‘s and D’s for effort.

This isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself. But it becomes a problem when universities establish laundry lists of impressive learning outcomes that they apparently expect students to meet. We should at least be honest about it — either acknowledging the situation by lowering officially lowering the bar or raising the standards for graduation, or perhaps a little bit of both.

The lack of honesty about what the minimally passing student knows is very unhealthy from a pedagogical point of view. One of the most important things to learn is to know what you don’t know. My sense is that many students have an inflated sense of their own writing skills (in part due to the self-esteem movement which minimized criticism.)

How could college be structured to ensure mastery of a certain minimum level of skills?

First I think students shouldn’t advance through college by accumulating course credits. Instead, it makes more sense for students to advance through college by mastering certain skills. Students would only be permitted to advance to a higher level if they had demonstrated that certain skills had been acquired. Student evaluation would have to be handled by disinterested parties, perhaps people outside the university. A minimum score on the essay writing test of critical thinking the College Learning Assessment (CLA) could be one sub requirement.

In this model, courses would only be useful insofar as they helped a student improve their skills. So students wouldn’t have an incentive to search around for the easiest courses to take. Instead, students would have an incentive to take the courses that best prepared them for the certification test they had to take.

The idea of courses themselves might have to be scrapped. There is no reason to believe that the structure of college instruction of which the course is the basic unit, is necessarily the structure that maximizes learning potential.

Think about it this way. Say college costs $10,000 for the year, including two semesters as well as some classes over the summer. Now, say you wanted to learn something they didn’t require any particularly special equipment (e.g. this is like a liberal arts degree — no labs or microscopes or corpses needs to dissect) and you had an equivalent amount of money — $10,000 — allocated for this purpose. Put aside for a moment the all important credential that a college confers. Just focus on the learning itself.

To take a concrete example, say I wanted to learn more about statistics just because I’m interested in it and J had 10k to spend in helping me toward this goal. Would I spend this money on:

-renting a special place for me to study outside my home?
-subsidize research about esoteric areas of statistics?

No, what I would do is spend the money on a group of tutors who could help me through basic coursework. You can hire a decent tutor for $40 an hour. Okay, maybe PhDs would command more but I don’t need a PhD to teach me master’s level statistics. I just need someone who understands the material, communicates well and has A LOT of patience. A good undergrad statistics major could teach me a lot.

With 10k, I could afford to pay tutors to meet with me one on one for an hour a day, four days a week for 50 weeks out of the year and have $40 a week left over to pay my tutors to coordinate their lesson plans with each other.

I wouldn’t pay anyone to lecture to me in a room with 20 other students. That would be an obvious waste of money. There was a time in college when I naively thought I would major in economics and have a nicely remunerated position, like the guys from Hong Kong in my dorm. On the first day of the third class in the sequence of courses in the major, only minutes after I first learned the guns and butter model, the lecture became more highly mathematical than my brain could handle without careful, excruciatingly slow tutelage– and as other students raised their hands with questions I didn’t understand, I sat there, lost and thinking about what course I would replace it with. Lectures are useless and even counterproductive for the slow, plodding student. For the quick study, they are often a waste of time. Lectures can be masterful demonstrations of teaching that generate an unknown amount of actual learning. Great lectures are fun to give and to hear, but right now if you want to hear inspiring lectures by gifted speakers on all manner of subjects, you needn’t pay or leave your room.

If I paid a tutor to teach me one on one about the questions those students were asking in that Econ class, I would probably have a good chance of getting it after sn hour or two. Instead, an hour and a half lost on a lecture as a the professor forged ahead. (This is not to say I could have been any good at economics, but rather, that a dollar spent on one on one tutoring by an advanced economics major would have been much more helpful in helping me learn the material than a dollar spent to pay someone to lecture ti me and a group of students with greater math ability.

So I think that the amount of learning in college would increase if:

1. Graduation was contingent on skills mastery as determined by disinterested parties, rather than by accumulating college credit.  (What if a student had already mastered the skills, or did so after a short time?  Good, then they pass the test early and get their degree.  Don’t waste the time and money of these students.  Give them their degree and let them move on.)

2. Tuition money was spent in a way that maximized learning.  Automate what can be automated with relatively minimal loss of quality: lectures, computer-checked exams, etc. Maximize time with one-on-one tutoring, which can be affordable and effective when conducted by talented individuals without terminal degrees.  What better way to keep students engaged and on task than to require them to meet with instructors one-on-one nearly every day of the week?

(Where does this leave the professors with PhDs?  I’m not sure, but thinking about what would maximize student learning.  There’s no reason to believe that the interests of currently employed faculty are aligned with the interests of students.)

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